First Steps to Building Community-Labor-Political Alliances without Shortcuts

Amsterdam      It was just a first step.  ACORN had joined Ron Meyer and Lieke Smits, the principal officers of the Socialist Party Netherlands, in calling together a small group of twenty or so in the late summer who might be able to come together for a conversation on a Saturday in Amsterdam to share their experiences in trying to build a working alliance or partnership between community organizations, labor unions, and political formations or parties.  Interest was huge.  The only real obstacle was the European holiday schedule where many were already committed or unavailable, as we sent out inquires of interest.  Nonetheless, we had representatives from various organizations including France, United Kingdom, Brussels, and Holland that joined us for what turned out to be a very fruitful and intense initial conversation.

Almost like a neighborhood first organizing committee meeting, the morning introductions when groups reported on their work were peppered with questions and the excitement that comes from people realizing that others are sharing the same experiences with similar issues, and therefore are not alone.  The party representatives from France were thrilled to discover the depths of the experiences of the SP/N with community organizing.  The unions from the Netherlands and Brussels found common cause on issues from organizing – or the lack of it – to institutional and traditional restraints in the way their large organizations of were facing the challenges of declining membership and new work formations and expectations.  The community organizers with ACORN were intrigued at the similarity of methods and issues they were hearing.

Everywhere there were “learning” moments, rather than “teachable” moments.  There was no effort at consensus, but a refreshing frankness served in solidarity.  Different views on the integration of movements and organizations looked for light, rather than heat.  Explanations about cultures of compromise tried to grapple with organizing models based on conflict.  Advice given about quietly fighting within were listened to closely even as others argued for storming the barricades.

One union organizer cautioned others that “assumptions are the mother of all mess-ups,” though he used a different word.  An SP organizer critiqued a former methodology as doing “actions FOR people, rather than actions WITH people,” noting that they had moved their interactions from 90% talking to 80% listening instead.  These were organizers of course so opinions were often challenged with questions about the underlying numbers, whether there was accountability, and how tactics and methodology responded to the numbers.

The evaluations were unanimously positive.  No decisions were made.  No officers were elected.  There was only consensus on one item:  meeting again in January with everyone here and all that could not make it on such short notice.

That was enough, and it was important.


Uberization and Organizing

IG Metall Rally

Milan       In Europe there is increasing interest – and concern – over what is called the “uberization” of the economy, named after the ubiquitous and controversial US-based, but globally operating, Uber ride-sharing application.  A French parliamentarian used the expression in a communication in recent days.  Talking to a union organizer in the Netherlands, he told me of efforts in Germany to try to organize gig workers as one of several dozen campaigns being undertaken by the giant union Ver.di in that country.

Researchers are clear that it is starting to be a sizeable enough part of the workforce in Europe that it is worth attention.  A 2018 report by researchers Stefan Dietl and Kathrin Birner on the efforts of German unions, tried to get a sense of the scale of employment in this area, saying,

Few data is available on the actual dimension of crowdwork and gig work. An ILO study on crowdwork and gig work cites calculations assuming about 220,000 transportation gig workers internationally, almost 7 million care workers, and over 14 million working as clickworkers worldwide (De Stefano 2016). Experts estimate there are between 200,000 and 1 million click workers in Germany, between 1 and 12 per cent of the European working population (Pesole et. al. 2018; Bonin and Rinne 2017; Huws et al. 2017). A governmentally financed study on the platform economy estimates that up to 5 per cent of eligible voters perform crowd and gig work (Serfling 2018) and the Federal Ministery of Labor and Social Affairs assumes that a third out of these 5 per cent work only offline (gig work), a fifth only online (crowdwork), and the rest perform online and offline tasks2. With 61,9 million eligible voters as of 2017, 5 per cent results in 3,09 million crowd and gig workers, with at least one million working in gig work and at least 618,000 as pure crowdworkers.

Independent unions were created for delivery workers in several German cities, along with the election of works councils in some cases.  Deliveroo and others ended up defeating the works council effort by steadily cancelling the actual contracts for some of their delivery workers so that the workforce was all self-employed.  German courts ruled the efforts illegal, but like in the USA, the damage was done.

Interestingly IG-Metall in Germany, one of the largest unions in the world, opened their membership up to informal and self-employed workers in 2015.  Their size and strength showed signs of some success.  The researchers noted in their report that,

The campaign put enough pressure on the eight biggest German platforms so that these signed a “Code of Conduct“ affecting 2 million users. The “Code of Conduct“ sets minimum standards and includes regulations on fair payment, reasonable timing, and transparency.

These are early stage efforts, but they are showing some strength.  A similar story on the museum and art workers also shows some stirring in the USA from unexpected quarters:

Museum workers are organizing.  the fight against income inequality has taken hold in their world, with curators, handlers and designers publicly pressuring executives to raise their wages, and in some cases forming unions. The workers said they had been inspired by recent union drives at media companies and among graduate students, and their efforts even echo the #MeToo movement in its use of Google Doc crowdsourcing. In one widely shared spreadsheet, arts workers are anonymously posting their job titles and salaries, alongside those of museum officials who in certain cases are making eight times as much as some curators.

We need to follow all of this closely, wherever it pops up!


Please enjoy Midnight Sun from Calexico and Iron & Wine.

Thanks to KABF.